In Borneo, we met the Colugo – the Flying Lemur that isn’t

Colugo or Sunda Flying Lemur in Bako National Park

My family was on an excruciatingly short visit to Borneo. We had three days in Kuching, the capital and the largest city of the southern Malaysian province of Sarawak, and all that we heard from the local people on our first rain-washed afternoon there was, “You also going Sabah?” And when we shook our heads, they responded likewise, clicking their tongues and muttering, “Nice forest, Sabah. Proboscis monkey. Orangutan. Rafflesia. Colugo…”

Sabah, to the north of Sarawak and bordered by the tiny, oil-rich monarchy of Brunei, is famous for Malaysia’s best-known UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Kinabalu, and its wealth of wildlife and nature. But we had no plans for Sabah. Three days in Sarawak seemed all too short once we landed on the island of Borneo, despite all the reading we had done before our arrival. On the day we landed, we strolled by the Sarawak River in Kuching and took shelter from a mid-morning downpour that came down in sheets for two hours. And this, we were told, was the dry season. After some quick, curated orangutan encounters in the rainforest fragments of Semenggoh on the day we landed, we made hurried plans, overpaying in desperation for our trip the next day to Bako National Park.

Bako National Park in Sarawak, East Malaysia, Borneo
The dense canopy of the coastal rainforest in Bako National Park reverberated with birdsong, and unseen birds
The beautifully variegated forest floor
The beautifully variegated forest floor and understory

It was a glorious morning — clear, warm and sunny — when we rode a motor launch from the jetty to the rainforest entry point. The speedboat took us along the turbid Sungai Tabo stream for a few kilometres past ramshackle fishing villages and stands of ancient forest, much of it hopelessly logged and denuded, then cut into a broad, choppy channel and docked us near a stand of lush coastal forest on the edge of a mangrove-lined estuary.

Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
The shore of the estuary in Bako National Park
Stingless bees in Bako National Park
Stingless bees swarm a nest in Bako National Park
A friendly freshwater terrapin flanked by catfish in a forest stream in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A friendly freshwater terrapin flanked by catfish in a forest stream in Bako National Park
In Bako National Park, on the trail of the Colugo
Pongo, our guide, leads us on a trail through Bako National Park in Sarawak, East Malaysia

Our guide Pongo took us on a short boardwalk trail through the coastal rainforest. It was lush, humid and beautiful. Trees rose high from the mulchy earth, shutting out the blazing forenoon sun. A Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) fed nonchalantly on roots and tubers. Another walked up to the guesthouse and sought its fortunes near the garbage bins, tempting tourists to amble over and photograph it. Near the restaurant, bright green Wagler’s Pit Vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri) sunned on tree limbs.

Wagler's Pit Viper
A Wagler’s Pit Viper basks in the sun
Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park
Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park
The Bornean Bearded Pig solicits alms from tourists at Bako National Park
Plantain Squirrel in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A startled Plantain Squirrel shrieks invective at us

We kept to the trail. A startled Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) scurried up a tree trunk, then shinnied up into the canopy from where it shrieked insults at us. The boardwalk was well maintained but parts of it were slippery with moss, so we walked cautiously. Tiny bridges led us over creeks patrolled by fiddler crabs brandishing their oversized claws. In a freshwater stream deep inside the forest, catfish nuzzled our fingers curiously. A little black terrapin came along to watch us, sticking its neck out with expectation. Pongo, to my horror, fished out some breadcrumbs from his pocket and fed the wild reptile. His trick was a hit with my little girl — and I had to give her a lesson later that evening when we got back to the hotel about the importance of keeping wild things wild. Along the stone walls of a cliff, little Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta) nested. There were bird calls aplenty, but most of the culprits behaved as they do in a rainforest — they made themselves scarce.

We began to look for Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus). There was one troop here, Pongo told us, that revealed itself to visitors whenever it pleased. After three hours of roaming the trails, sweat dribbling down our backs in the cool but humid forest, we realised today wasn’t going to be one of those days. Instead, a troop of about 50 inquisitive Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) showed up and gave us unwanted company as we navigated the trail. Back on the coastal forest trail, Pongo said that if we were lucky, we might see a colugo. That got my blood up.

A Glossy Swiftlet in its nest at Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A Glossy Swiftlet in its nest
A large dragonfly calls out for attention
A large dragonfly calls out for attention
A Wood Spider mans the little skies of the forest
A Wood Spider stalks the little skies of the forest
A hermit crab on the beach at Bako National Park
A hermit crab on the beach at Bako National Park
Fiddler Crabs indulge in a spot of sabre-rattling in the brackish creeks
Fiddler Crabs indulge in a spot of sabre-rattling in the brackish creeks

The Colugo, quite erroneously known as the Flying Lemur, is an arboreal gliding mammal. It was thought to be related to flying squirrels, but it isn’t. Since they glide, it was thought that they shared a common ancestry with bats, but we know now that’s not true. It was then thought that its nearest kin were primates like the lemurs of Madagascar, but that contention is too simplistic and not entirely accurate either.  The Colugo, like the Tree Shrew, is classified by some taxonomists under the grand order Euarchonta.

The Colugo found in these parts, also known as the Sunda Flying Lemur (Galeopterus variegatus), is actually one of two species of animals in the order Dermoptera. They are completely arboreal and nocturnal, and feed entirely on fruits, flowers, leaves, tree sap and other vegetable matter. They have a large folded membrane of skin — called a patagium — that stretches between the forelegs and the hindlegs when the animal is in motion.

There’s something else about the Colugo that is interesting. Despite being a placental mammal, it raises its young in a behaviour closely resembling that of marsupials. The underdeveloped newborns spend their early life clinging to the mother’s belly, nursing. The mother curls its tail and creates a sheltering pouch within the folds of its patagium. We hoped to see a female colugo with its infant, but our luck seemed to be running out.

The forest had an abundance of fungi
The forest had an abundance of fungi
A striking maroon dragonfly holds a pose for a second
A striking maroon dragonfly holds a pose for a second
A Common Tree Nymph essays its sashaying love dance in the canopy
A Common Tree Nymph essays its sashaying love dance in the canopy

My eyes followed the dance-like flight of a Common Tree Nymph (Idea stolli) and I recalled how similar it looked — almost identical, in fact — to a pair of Malabar Tree Nymphs (Idea malabarica) that I had seen in the rainforest of Katlekan in Sharavathi Valley, Karnataka earlier that year. This species was easier to photograph, though, and the light rained on it beautifully. As I watched it, mesmerised, Pongo called excitedly from ahead on the trail.

“Colugo,” he said. I left my pursuit of the butterfly and followed his gaze to the trunk of a tree. I saw nothing. The rest of us took turns peering through the binoculars but saw nothing, too. “There,” he hissed, “there!” But I just saw the lichen-mottled bark of a tree.

“Look up,” he said. “No, look down!”

For five minutes each of us took turns scanning the canopy of the tree that Pongo said hosted the Colugo. We saw nothing.

Then I saw it. “Wow!” I said and handed the binoculars to my wife, who had no idea where to look.

Then she, too, said, “Wow!”

Colugo in Bako National Park, Sarawak, East Malaysia
That’s it – that’s a Colugo
Against the bark of the tree, the Colugo is neatly camouflaged
Against the bark of the tree, the Colugo is neatly camouflaged

My daughter had no clue what we were marvelling at. “Where, where?” is all she asked.

Finally, I took a very bad, shaky photograph and asked her to scan the tree trunk for it. Then she too said, “Wow!”

Pongo grinned with satisfaction.

The Colugo was a very strange creature indeed. At first glance we only saw a cryptic patch of variegated fur on the tree. We couldn’t tell which part of the animal was its head. The photograph helped fathom it better — two large, berry-like eyes on the sides of the head, a pointy snout, and the rest of the body folded up like an umbrella that had been wrung out by a particularly bad storm. The tail seemed to be wrapped around something — was it a baby? We never got to know.


Read more posts about encounters with nature

Posted from Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Encounter – Golden-bellied Gerygone

Golden-bellied Gerygone at Pranburi Forest Reserve, Thailand
Golden-bellied Gerygone at Pranburi Forest Reserve, Thailand

Mangrove forests are dense, thickly wooded places where sunlight filters through the matted canopy in tricky patterns. This, together with the inaccessibility of the habitat, conspires to make bird-watching very challenging. Mangroves are tidal wetlands. They stand in  shallow, murky, usually saline water that ebbs and flows with the tide. As the water retreats periodically, it leaves behind thick, muddy ooze that resembles quicksand in consistency and disposition. This is when most of the wildlife comes out to play. Fiddler crabs, lobsters, mudskippers and endemic birds are all best seen at this time. You can even listen for the ‘clicking’ of the shrimp. But then again, forget about getting in there, for mangrove trees have sharp, spiky stilt roots that can spear clean through your foot should you step on one.

In July 2014, I happened to visit Pranburi Forest Park near the city of Hua Hin. Most mangrove wetlands around the Gulf of Thailand have been drained and cleared for saltpans but Pranburi has escaped the axe because the Queen of Thailand took a fancy to it. Not only is it protected by law but made accessible, too. A robust wooden walkway runs for more than a kilometre around the park in a circuit that takes you from low, wooded mangrove shrubbery to tall trees that tower over your head and shut out the sun. The trees in this patch are packed densely and their stilt roots are about six feet off the ground. All around, interpretative signboards have been placed to describe the flora and fauna. Unfortunately, they are all in Thai, but it’s heartening to see that in a country where indiscriminate hunting has exterminated most of its biodiversity, there remains some scope for conservation.

In some places, the mangrove stilt roots stand at least six feet off the ground
In some places, the mangrove stilt roots stand at least six feet off the ground

The media tour group that I was part of was taken to Pranburi Forest Park for a bizarre “conservation” exercise, detailed in our itineraries by the intriguing legend: ‘Freeing the Crabs.’ When we got there, I was shown to baskets of mud crabs whose pincers had been bound by lengths of plastic wire. We were instructed to pick up the crabs gently and carefully snip off the binding wire using a pair of metal wire-cutters, after which we were to release them from buckets down a chute back into the mangrove forest. I found the whole thing quite revolting, and not least because I cannot handle crabs. I’ve handled creepier things.

Here’s the deal. First off, these were crabs that had been caught for the pot. In a forest reserve! So, that was condoned, all right. Then, having been found to be not fully grown — their pincers didn’t have enough meat on them — they were not needed immediately. Ergo, the charade of releasing them back so that they could be caught again when they were ready to be served up.

The ignominious business of 'freeing the crabs'
The ignominious business of ‘freeing the crabs’

I eat plenty of crab myself but I wasn’t going to be part of this inane exercise dubbed as a “conservation” measure. So, I wandered off from the group and took a walk, exploring the fascinating forest along the boardwalk.

It was here that I met the Golden-bellied Gerygone (Gerygone sulphurea).

The mangrove forest became thicker and denser towards the centre. The boardwalk had been constructed with great care, allowing trees in its path to grow right through the boards. The tide was low, and there was hardly any water beneath the bridge. We were close to the sea though we couldn’t hear it from here. It was a warm, muggy day and sweat trickled down the back of my shirt. As I went deeper, the trees grew taller. They towered high over my head and sheltered me from the blazing sun.

A section of the boardwalk through the mangrove forest
A section of the boardwalk through the mangrove forest

Birdwing butterflies and small birds flitted about in the dense foliage but they were mostly too difficult to identify. I had seen some of them over the previous days of my stay in Thailand, so I could recognise them in passing. There were flowerpeckers and sunbirds and the odd magpie-robin, mostly. There was one quick-moving, restless little bird that piqued my interest, though. It was about the size of a warbler and dull olive-grey on its back with a bright sulphur-yellow throat and belly. It had a small (but not short) bill that was metallic steel-grey. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t a sunbird or a flowerpecker. I followed it around the confusing latticework of the canopy and tried to take a few photographs, most of which turned out blurry and out of focus. I managed a single record shot that was clear enough to identify the bird (the picture at the top of this post). Back at the hotel, I was able to identify it as the Golden-bellied Gerygone.

The boardwalk ends at a creek that runs through the mangrove forest
The boardwalk ends at a creek that runs through the mangrove forest

Though a common bird in Southeast Asia — its range extends from tropical and subtropical mangrove forests and lowland forests in Thailand to Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — the Golden-bellied Gerygone is also a most remarkable one. And there’s a reason for that. Most Gerygones, the family of birds known as peep-warblers that includes about 20 species, are confined to the New World and are distributed in Australia and New Guinea. Only one species, the Golden-bellied Gerygone, extends north or west of the Wallace Line (the imaginary line named after Alfred Russell Wallace to separate the ecozones of Asia and Australasia after the last Ice Age and the resulting faunal distribution on either side). The word Gerygone is derived from the Greek for ‘born of sound’ and nearly all of the birds have pleasant tinkling songs and some of them are known to be excellent mimics of other birds found in the area.

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It was the song, incidentally, that set this bird apart from the sunbirds and flowerpeckers in the mangrove woodland of Pranburi. A plaintive, soulful tinkle-warble that poured liquidly into the air. Not the trilling song of a flowerpecker or the merry descant chittering of the sunbird, but more like the fully formed, heavily annotated song of a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher or a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher that appears to leave the bird and stand alone in the air as a presence, an entity in itself.

All the while singing its heart out, the Golden-Bellied Gerygone flitted among the leaves as does a warbler or white-eye, gleaning insects and other prey too tiny for my befuddled eye to discern. And then, it melted away into the dappled patchwork of verdure and sunlight until all that remained of its presence was a song, half-heard and half-remembered.

ENJOY MORE BIRD ENCOUNTERS

God, Darwin, Ali and the Blue-capped Rock ThrushEncounter – The Black-and-Orange FlycatcherEncounter – The Spotted Forktail

Posted from Pak Nam Pran, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand.

Encounter – The Crow-billed Drongo

Note the bill - like a crow's. The Crow-billed Drongo is glossy black with a broad tail, less forked than the Black Drongo's
Note the bill - like a crow's. The Crow-billed Drongo is glossy black with a broad tail, less forked than the Black Drongo's
Note the bill – like a crow’s. The Crow-billed Drongo is glossy black with a broad tail, less forked than the Black Drongo’s

At first glance, it’s a dead ringer for the Racket-tailed Drongo, but then it lacks the rackets in the tail feathers or the prominent crest. Another bird you might confuse it with is the Spangled Drongo, but the head and the absent hairlike crest are telltale.  The tail, somewhat like that of the Spangled Drongo’s, is not as finely twirled as in that species. If you spot the bird hidden in the canopy, foliage preventing you from getting a look at its tail, it appears very much like a small crow.

Hidden among the trees, a Crow-billed Drongo examines its world
Hidden among the trees, a Crow-billed Drongo examines its world
Out on a limb, this Crow-billed Drongo very much resembles its cousin, the Racket-tailed Drongo, but is yet different
Out on a limb, this Crow-billed Drongo very much resembles its cousin, the Racket-tailed Drongo, but is yet different

This is the Crow-billed Drongo (Dicrurus annectans) and the name explains its appearance. In habit, it behaves much like the other drongos we know. In India its distribution extends from lowland moist deciduous forests and mangrove forests in northeastern India. Besides India, it ranges all the way south to the Malay peninsula, encompassing Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is believed to breed in northeastern India and southern China.

I encountered the Crow-billed Drongo quite abundantly in the Dooars of northern Bengal in early April. It was frequently seen in mixed hunting flocks along with ioras, barbets, orioles and starlings. Often, I found it being mobbed or chased by jungle babblers and bulbuls. Most of the birds I saw were solitary, although non-intimate dispersed groups of three or four birds were also common. Young individuals appeared to sport whitish scale-like markings on the breast. The eyes appeared to be dark maroon.

The birds in the photographs were pictured at Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Bengal.

MORE ON DRONGOS

Encounter – The Asian Drongo-Cuckoo

On The Wing – The Racket-tailed Drongo

April Fooled – A Drongo’s Spot of Bother

Posted from Hasimara, West Bengal, India.

Encounter – Hoary-bellied Squirrel

The Hoary-bellied Squirrel occurs abundantly in the forests of the Dooars up to about 1500 m in the Himalaya

The Hoary-bellied Squirrel occurs abundantly in the forests of the Dooars up to about 1500 m in the Himalaya

At the crack of dawn I strolled to the balcony of my friend’s pad in the Hasimara Air Force Station (in the Dooars of northern Bengal), alerted by a great swinging and rustling in the branches of a gigantic bay tree. In the blue filmy light of daybreak, I only detected the shape of a squirrel, watching me watching it. I scuttled indoors for my binoculars and camera. When I returned, it was gone. I waited, and my patience paid off. Soon enough, the squirrel reappeared on the bough, pretending not to notice me as squirrels often do. Yet, all the while, even as its busy little maw worked away indefatigably at whatever it was noshing, the squirrel kept its eye on me. I drew a breath, relaxed a little, and peered at it with my field glasses. It was about one and a half times as large as the palm squirrels we have down south, but it differed in having a beautiful golden fawn coat, completely unmarked by stripes or spots. Among individuals, there appeared to be some variation — often in size and in the colour of the coats. The squirrels chased each other up and down the trees all day long, chattering loudly in a voice that did not flatter their appearance.

The Hoary-bellied Squirrel hails from a family of tree squirrels known as the Beautiful Squirrels
The Hoary-bellied Squirrel hails from a family of tree squirrels known as the Beautiful Squirrels

This, I came to learn, was the Hoary-bellied Squirrel (Callosciurus pygerythrus). It also answers to the name of Irrawaddy Squirrel, which gives us an idea of its range — northeastern India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China’s southern Yunnan region, and western and central Myanmar. The Hoary-bellied belongs to a family of squirrels known as the Beautiful Squirrels for their extremely alluring appearance. Despite the plainness of its coat, this species is quite handsome. It was observed in mid-canopies in gardens and plantations, as well as in forest in the wildlife reserves of Chilapata, Jaldapara and Buxa in the Dooars of northern Bengal. That said, its range is threatened by habitat loss due to tree felling and disturbance of forest areas. Unlike many other species, it reproduces only once a year with about three to four young in a litter.

Its calls are loud and it is easily spotted in the forests and gardens of the Dooars
Its calls are loud and it is easily spotted in the forests and gardens of the Dooars

A strange thing happened with the squirrels of Hasimara. For the first few days of my sojourn there in early April this year, they appeared to be abundant and everywhere. They rustled about in the treetops, chased each other along the hedgerows, and engaged in noisy bickering. One morning there was a heavy downpour. And that was the last I saw of the squirrels. They were not heard from again for the rest of my days there. What might have happened, I have no idea.

Love squirrels? Check out these posts on the Himalayan Marmot and the Indian Giant Squirrel

Posted from Hasimara, West Bengal, India.

Encounter – Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

A friend and I were ambling around a marsh near Point Reyes, CA, when we noticed a hummingbird perched on a branch. The body was green and it had a dark purple head. Since we didn’t have the birding guide at hand, we let it be and walked around. Later, we would identify it as Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna).

A little ahead, we saw another hummingbird perched on a shorter bush. We walked towards it and it turned its head towards us. The head was a striking, deep pink that literally stopped my heart. But before we could get a good look it took off.

Pretty? Yeah. Striking?
Pretty? Yeah. Striking?Not so much!

Later, when we returned to the same spot, the plain-looking hummingbird was perched on the shorter bush. The other one was nowhere in sight, so we decided to approach this one for a closer look. As photographers always prefer a front-on light, we went around the bird to get into a favourable position with respect to light. As we moved, we noticed that the lores of the bird were now glowing iridescent pink. Wow! That was something we hadn’t seen, we remarked to each other. After getting a couple of shots through, we resumed our walk aiming to “get the angle right”.

The Anna's humming bird-  peripheral view. Not bad colors , eh?
Anna’s Hummingbird: A peripheral view

Then the hummingbird pointed its head towards us, and we finally got the plot. The deep pink-headed  hummingbird was not a different bird – it was the same bird we were seeing from all directions. When direct sunlight fell on its face, the feathers there glowed in a hard-hitting metallic pink-red.

There, he went there!
There, he went that-a-way, says the Anna’s Hummingbird

It was an encounter just shy of an epiphany. The most basic of photography lessons tell you the same thing over and over again – the angle and quality of light have a huge bearing on how good your subject looks. However, even the most masterful photographers would find this transformation effected by light nothing short of sheer magic!

Also read: Americana – A birding diary from the United States

Posted from Inverness, California, United States.

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